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Fears for balance inquango shake-up

Outsiders are being brought into the Scottish Office to advise ministers on appointments to the boards of six educational organisations.

Michael Forsyth, the Scottish Secretary, told the Scottish Grand Committee of MPs on Tuesday that he wanted to "dispel misconceptions" surrounding public bodies and ensure they were fully accountable "and are seen to be so".

A consultation paper outlines further steps which the Scottish Office says are designed to improve the openness and accessibility of all quangos. They include a code of practice, public advertisement to invite candidates to apply for membership and more external participation in five-yearly Scottish Office reviews.

The educational quangos affected are the Scottish Examination Board, the Scottish Vocational Education Council, the Scottish Council for Educational Technology, the Scottish Community Education Council, the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council and the Scottish Further Education Unit.

The Secretary of State appoints 92 members to the boards of these organisations which are among 39 quangos identified in the consultation paper. They, along with the 15 health boards and 47 NHS trusts which are also covered by the paper, are responsible for Pounds 5.7 billion of Scottish Office expenditure.

The SHEFC is the biggest spender among the 39 quangos, accounting for Pounds 538 million. The SEB and Scotvec exist on exam fees and receive no Scottish Office funds.

David Miller, who chairs both examining bodies, welcomed the changes as the price which must be paid for establishing the credibility of organisations by ensuring they are acceptable to the public.

Mr Miller hoped, however, that advertising for board members would not squeeze out people of relevant experience. It would be "ludicrous" if a body like Scotvec did not have representation from the local authorities, the STUC, the CBI or the enterprise organisations.

Mr Miller also said he would "hang on like grim death" to the right of public bodies to make appointments themselves to ensure they have the right expertise, experience or geographical balance.

The failure of the document to address the "self-perpetuating" boards of further education colleges came under fire from Ronnie Smith, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland. Their membership was originally chosen by Ian Lang when he was Secretary of State but boards now fill their own vacancies.

"You cannot get much more opaque than that remarkable arrangement," Mr Smith said.

He added that the proposals "look like a gloss without any changes to the substance. At the end of the day the Secretary of State retains the patronage, and that must be one of the issues to be taken up by a Scottish parliament. "

Mr Smith expressed particular concern that the Scottish Qualifications Authority, which will take over from the two examination bodies next April, would not have the guaranteed representation for school interests.

The proposal for at least two independent members to sit on Scottish Office appointment panels is intended to challenge the perception of patronage and will be put into effect this month. But the panels will remain advisory and the final decisions will rest with the Secretary of State.

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